- 2017 brought a mix of good and bad news from Indonesia, pertaining primarily to its forest-protection efforts, its recognition of indigenous rights and its balancing of infrastructure needs with local livelihoods.
- Policies issued in the wake of the devastating 2015 forest fires led to a significant decrease in hotspots and burned area in 2017, but face opposition from industry, parliament and even government officials.
- The government is hopeful it can halve the number of annual hotspots by 2019 from business-as-usual levels, even as the weather agency warns of drier conditions this year.
- Efforts to recognize indigenous people’s rights continued at a glacial pace, and frequently clashed with the government’s ambitious infrastructure-building push.
JAKARTA — 2017 saw Indonesia once again fulfilling its economic development potential.
The Southeast Asian nation started out the year with mixed superlatives: home to the third-largest stretch of tropical forest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo Basin, but also plagued by some of the highest rates of deforestation and carbon emissions of any country on Earth.
On the ground, the country’s indigenous groups made piecemeal progress on government promises for greater autonomy to manage their lands and forests sustainably, while continuing to suffer violence and land grabs. Those problems could intensify in the coming year as parliament looks set to pass new legislation that would heavily favor palm oil companies.
For peat’s sake
In the wake of massive land fires in 2015 that blanketed much of the region in a choking haze for months, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo rolled out various measures to protect the carbon-rich peat forests that are the most vulnerable to these nearly annual blazes.
In 2016, the president established an agency, called the BRG, to spearhead nationwide efforts to restore degraded peat forests; announced a moratorium on the draining of peat swamps, which leaves them highly combustible; and issued his signature piece of anti-haze regulation, which calls for, among other things, companies to conserve peat areas within their concessions.
The 2016 regulation was followed last year by a string of implementing regulations issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, containing detailed instructions on how companies should comply.
But at the same time, legislators are pushing for wholesale amendments to legislation on the palm oil industry, something which critics say would constitute a favorable deal for large corporations and a means for vested interests to undermine the peat protection measures put in place by President Jokowi.
Critics point out that an article in the bill states explicitly that plantations may be developed in peat areas, thereby undermining attempts to keep companies from further destroying these important ecosystems.
Legislators have made the bill a priority for passage this year, saying it will help farmers and make Indonesia’s palm oil industry more globally competitive. The bill’s backers in parliament accuse Western stakeholders of carrying out a smear campaign to boost their own soybean and rapeseed oil industries. Indonesia currently produces more than half of the world’s supply of palm oil, which is the dominant vegetable oil commodity in use today, found in products ranging from toothpaste to dairy creamer to biodiesel.
“Indonesia is currently actively campaigning for sustainable palm oil to the outside world,” says Maryo Saputra, campaign division head of the NGO Sawit Watch. “But when this bill is passed, all of those efforts will be for nothing because the bill says that you can plant oil palm trees on peat soil.”
The pushback against the peat-protection regulations have come not just from parliament, but also industry groups and government officials, who say it will hurt investor confidence in Indonesia. In particular, they oppose the requirement to cease planting in deep peat and conserve those areas, on the grounds that it would hurt the pulp and paper industry, especially in Sumatra Island’s Riau province, home to 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of industrial timber plantations — an area the size of the state of Connecticut.
This past June, a labor union in Riau, one of the regions hardest hit by the annual fires, filed a legal challenge against the requirement, which is stipulated under an environment ministry regulation. In October, the country’s highest court deemed the regulation unconstitutional, arguing that it would create legal uncertainty and give rise to further problems if it continued to be enforced.
The government says the ruling will not hamper its efforts to conserve peat areas. The core defenses, including protected-area status for at least 30 percent of peat domes — landscapes where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges — are already enshrined in the 2016 presidential regulation.
Another measure that has been hotly contested is a requirement for companies to revise their work plans, which explain where they intend to operate in the coming years and must be approved by the state. The revised plans will allow the environment ministry to identify parts of existing concessions that it has already mapped out for conservation, and which the companies will be required to rewet to prevent fires.
PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a subsidiary of Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper firm, fought back against the ministry’s order to submit new work plans, arguing that doing so would severely affect its production and force it to lay off thousands of workers. The company insisted it should be allowed to operate in the areas the ministry deemed off-limits until the expiration of its existing work plans in 2019. That prompted the ministry to void those work plans.
In November, RAPP filed suit with a court in Jakarta, seeking to repeal the ministry’s order nullifying its work plans. But in December the court ruled against RAPP, and the company subsequently said it would comply with the ministry’s order to submit new work plans.
“Throughout 2017, environmental protection, especially on peat zones which are essential, has been challenged by systemic efforts to defy the laws and policies by corporates,” the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental pressure group, said in a press statement.
Where there’s smoke
The government’s efforts to protect peat areas, and hence mitigate the inevitable fires that accompany the annual clearing of land for new oil palm and pulp plantations, met with little success at first.
The fires began in earnest in July, flaring up in provinces with no history of land and forest fires, such as East Nusa Tenggara and Aceh. That month, the number of recorded hotspots was 49 percent higher than in July of 2016, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
The government responded to the issue by declaring a state of emergency in five provinces: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.
By the end of the year, there were fewer than 2,500 hotspots on record — a drop of 89 percent from the figure in 2015, according to data from the Coordinating Ministry for the Economy. The total area affected by fires also declined 95 percent to 1,250 square kilometers (482 square miles) during the same period.
While more rains certainly helped reduce the number of hotspots, ultimately it was the efforts by various stakeholders to mitigate the fires that proved most effective, said Darmin Nasution, the coordinating minister for the economy.
One of those mitigation efforts was the rewetting of dried-out peat swamps, coordinated by the BRG. Throughout 2017, the agency managed to rewet 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) in six provinces: Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan. That was still only half of its target of 4,000 square kilometers.
But the government isn’t stopping there. In December, it announced an ambitious plan to halve the number of hotspots by 49 percent by 2019, compared to business-as-usual levels. The government aims to meet the target by ensuring 121,000 square kilometers (46,720 square miles) of land is kept free of fire.
The rollout of the plan comes as Indonesia’s weather agency, the BMKG, predicts drier-than-usual conditions in parts of the country starting in May this year, as a result of the La Niña weather system.
Much of the headlines coming out of Indonesia this past year made for grim reading: “In remote Indonesian villages, indigenous communities fight a hydropower dam”; “Protests over geothermal development heat up in Central Java”; “Sand mining, land reclamation meet fierce resistance in Makassar”; “Protest against hydropower plant in Sumatra ends with injuries,” among others.
A central theme in all these cases was the clash between local communities and the Jokowi administration’s ambitious infrastructure development plan, undergirded by a project to build an additional 35,000 megawatts of power-generation capacity by 2019.
That project calls for the construction of 117 new coal-fired power plants, which the government hopes will raise Indonesia’s electrification rate from the current 93.08 percent to 97.32 percent by 2019. Some parts of the country have electrification rates much lower than the national average; in Papua province, less than half of all households are connected to the grid.
Power plants are only one slice of the infrastructure pie, though; the government has also embarked on a host of other building projects, including 74 new roads, 23 railway lines, 10 seaports and eight airports. All told, the government aims to complete 245 infrastructure projects by the 2019 deadline.
The rationale from the government is simple: improving infrastructure nationwide stimulates economic activity, which in turn drives social development. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016 ranks Indonesia 62nd out of 140 economies in terms of infrastructure development.
“Don’t dream that we can compete with other countries and win the competition if our infrastructure is still lagging behind,” President Jokowi said last year. “We have to work hard and catch up [with other countries]. We have to speed up this [infrastructure] development.”
But this ambitious push comes at a price.
“I’ve noticed that in 2017, there’s been an increase in violence against indigenous people compared to last year,” Abdon Nababan, a long-time advocate for indigenous people’s rights in Indonesia, told reporters in Jakarta recently.
“If in 2016, the conflicts were mainly around conservation areas and national parks, this year the conflicts centered on infrastructure projects because it’s the priority of the president and vice president,” he said.
Abdon cited a case in Sipirok, in northern Sumatra, where an indigenous community at threat of eviction from their ancestral lands by a planned 510 MW hydroelectric dam have risen in opposition to the project. In August, the community staged a protest, which turned violent when a man who identified himself as a representative of the project’s developer, PT North Sumatra Hydro Energy (NSHE), allegedly shoved one of the protesting women; another woman claimed a man struck her with his elbow when she refused to leave the protest.
In Seko, in the south of Sulawesi Island, several indigenous communities are protesting against a planned 480 MW hydroelectric dam, part of a broader plan to build add 1,154 MW of new hydropower capacity to the region.
Residents there fear that the project will divide their villages. They have campaigned actively against the project, blockading the road to Central Seko to keep heavy machinery out, dismantling the drilling-site tents, and removing soil samples collected by company engineers.
Thirteen Seko residents were subsequently arrested for vandalism and, in March, convicted and sentenced to seven months in jail.
“Indigenous people become criminals in their own lands just because they want to live in their own lands,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, the secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), during an event in Jakarta. “That’s their sin.”
Worst yet are the reports of intimidation and outright abuse faced by the Seko residents: of children beaten at school; of a police raid that sent most of the village scrambling into the forest to hide; of detainees being beaten in custody; of peaceful protests by women being violently dispersed; and of a climate of fear in general.
Indigenous rights advocate Abdon said these conflicts arose because the government had failed to recognize the rights of the indigenous people before proceeding with the development projects.
In all, the number of such conflicts in Indonesia increased by 50 percent from the previous year to 659 cases in 2017, according to data from the Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA) — this despite land reform being one of President Jokowi’s policy priorities.
Most of the conflicts involved oil palm plantations, accounting for 208 cases (32 percent), followed by conflicts with property developers (with 199 cases) and infrastructure projects, at 94 cases.
“This shows the sluggish progress of the agrarian reform policies,” KPA secretary general Dewi Kartika said in Jakarta as reported by the Kompas daily. “This [slow progress] is in contrast to the speed of large-scale investment projects which are hungry for land.”
Critics fear the government’s push to push infrastructure development nationwide will only result in more casualties, as President Jokowi issues new regulations to speed up the construction of priority projects.
One of those regulations, issued last year, pertains to land zoning, and calls for zoning documents to be revised to pave the way for massive infrastructure projects included in the government’s list of “national strategic projects.” Once the government declares a project a national priority, the zoning plans must accommodate the project — as was the case with a coal-fired power plant project in West Java province, according to watchdogs.
The project had previously been thrown out by the provincial administrative court in 2016 because it was not included in the local zoning plans, which designated the project site a protected forest. To get the project back on track, the West Java administration changed the province’s zoning regulations last year after the project was included in the list of national strategic projects, thereby undercutting the court ruling.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya said the central government had ensured the list of strategic national projects was in line with regional zoning plans.
“There’s a synchronization [between the list and regional zoning plans] because the list has been communicated at the regional level,” she told reporters on the sidelines of an event in Jakarta last year. “The president has conducted several meetings with governors. So there shouldn’t be problems.”
Overall, 2017 brought a mix of good and bad news from Indonesia, with activists believing that 2018 will become another year of struggle between conservation and economic development as the government keeps developing infrastructure nationwide.
Banner image: Farmers work a potato farm near a geothermal plant on the Dieng Plateau, on the Indonesian island of Java. Photo by Raditya Mahendra Yasa/Flickr.